Invitations to join Phi Lambda Phi sorority went out during the first semester of my high school freshman year. I was thirteen. I stared at the card and sighed. The tomboy in me revolted but I knew my mother wanted me to join.
I called my friend Susie (not her real name.) “Did you get yours?” I asked.
“Not yet,” she said.
The next day, I sat next to her in English and showed her my invitation.
“My mother says I probably won’t get one,” she said.
I never dreaming she would not be asked and kept hoping her invite would arrive soon. When it didn’t, I felt shocked and sad and powerless. I thought of all the things we probably wouldn’t be doing together any more.
My mother and her friend’s had asked tall, stately Emily Rothschild to lead their daughters through the labyrinth of their coming of age years. They chose Emily because she represented all they wanted us to become; well mannered, elegant and skilled in the ways of society. She was an older lady, mid thirties. She dressed like the cover of VOGUE and showed off her beautiful profile by parting her sleek, black hair in the middle and combing it back into a bun at the nape of her neck.
She and her husband Louis loved children but had none of their own. They spent much of their time in Kansas City where he owned a ladies clothing store or hobnobbing with friends in Washington DC .
Most of the girls attended Sunset Hill, a private girl’s school. Some of the sons of my parent’s friends went to Pembroke Country Day and they loosely formed their own fraternity, Alpha Gam. The rest of us went to Southwest High, a public school where the rich and not so rich white kids rubbed elbows in the crowded halls and noisy classrooms.
The girls in my sorority and the boys in Alpha Gam ranged in age from thirteen to eighteen. Most of us had known each other since babyhood and attended B’nai Jehuda Sunday School together. We took turns having the meetings at our homes and met every other Sunday afternoon. No one objected when the boys crashed our meetings.
Girls at Southwest were encouraged to join a school literary society. I received an invitation to Thalian, ranked by my peers as third best behind Sopho and Sesame. I wondered about that but blew it off because I spent most of my after school time swimming or playing field hockey.
Inevitably, I became more engaged with my sorority friends and saw less of Susie. We had a couple of classes together but my weekends were filled with sorority and fraternity activities. Still, as time went by, I began to hear some startling facts.
Sunset Hill School only allowed two Jewish girls per class. All eight of those Jewish high school girls were in my sorority.
Pembroke also had a quota and the Jewish boys that went to school there were in Alpha Gam.
Some of my good friends from grade school had joined ‘gentile’ sororities.
And those literary societies? They were segregated too. In 1941, Thalian was the only one that accepted Jews.
Eventually I came to realize that other Jewish sororities existed, populated by girls I knew only casually or didn’t know at all.
Our parents tried to insulate us from anti-Semitism. Jews were banned from most country clubs in town so our parents belonged to Oakwood, formed by Kansas City Jews of German decent.
At Phi Lambda Phi, we heard about the tony Christmas Tea Dance but none of us were invited. We spoke of it little and pretended not to care because our parents gave us our own Christmas party at Oakwood.
Meanwhile, Emily Rothschild kept our sorority running smoothly. We had an active social life with lots of get-togethers and parties. In my senior year, one of Southwest’s most popular football heroes asked me to the prom. Though flattered, I refused because by then, I had begun to date someone else.
Twenty years later, anti-Semitism still raged in Kansas City. Jewish women were not welcome in The Junior League. In 1954, “Clara Hockaday, a prominent socialite Kansas City Matron founded The Jewel Ball, an annual debutante affair that raised money to benefit The Nelson Atkins Museum of Art.” It was common knowledge that no more that two Jewish girls per year would receive.a ‘coveted’ invitation, though that is no longer the case. Still, as columnist Hearne Christopher noted: Society can make for a cruel mistress.
There are signs that prejudice against Jews has faded. A few now belong to previously restricted country clubs and some country clubs in Kansas City are fully integrated. Oakwood has attempted to acquire a more diverse membership but still remains essentially Jewish.
Recently, FOX News aired comments by an anti Semitic fringe Senate candidate that urged “white people to unite and take our country back.”
“History has shown that wherever anti-Semitism has gone unchecked, the persecution of others has been present or not far behind. Defeating anti-Semitism must be a cause of great importance not only for Jews, but for all people who value humanity and justice….”
—U.S. Department of State, Contemporary Global Anti-Semitism Report, March 13, 2008
During the Eisenhower administration, Louis Rothschild was appointed Under Secretary of Transportation.